The recent death of Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister — the great and irreplaceable elder statesman of metal — stood out as a sharp reminder that even the most rock ‘n’ roll among us will still grow old, and that no amount of accelerated drumbeats and arpeggiated soloing can stave that off. “I can’t do it,” Kilmister confessed a few weeks before his death, while giving up onstage in Austin – a gaunt, apologetic figure, incapable but still iconic.
Granted, Kilmister, who was 70 years old, died from cancer — not old age — a disease that steals younger icons, too. In 2001, Chuck Schuldiner — whose band, Death, counts as initiator of the “death metal” subgenre — died of brain cancer at the age of 34. Early death was eerily apropos for Schuldiner, since a high proportion of his band’s subject matter was devoted to confronting human death in all its forms. Schuldiner did so with sobriety of someone much older. Death was never a band that used morbidity in a schlocky way, or for simple aesthetic atmosphere. Instead, for Schuldiner, metal was a way to confront the stress of a topic that harasses universally, and he did so with an intensity of both form and emotion that few artists of other media have been able to muster.
Another band that squared with the topic of physical death is England’s Carcass. Initially, the boys in Carcass were progenitors of “goregrind” — a gloomy-but-fierce style that in the late 1980s sprang from the remains of English hardcore punk, adopting extreme metal and lifting it with a dose of the blackest humor imaginable. Their debut album, 1988’s Reek of Putrefaction, features a photo collage of body parts in assorted states of decay as its cover art, equally as comic as it is horrible. On their last tour, Carcass sold coffee mugs that bore the same image. The collage serves as an obscene gesture toward the topic of death by desecrating human matter itself — a very different demeanor than that of Schuldiner’s grappling. It is both nihilist and, in its resolution toward the inevitable, surprisingly healthy.
Over the years, the members of Carcass developed both as musicians and artists, and began to show a remarkable ability to weave styles and shrug off sub-genre restrictions, mixing in an increasing measure of melodic guitar riffing. By 1991’s Necroticism — Descanting the Insalubrious, that riffing had become endlessly creative, and had somewhat unwillingly pulled them into the “melodic death metal” category that housed a number of other European bands at the time.
In 2013, after a nearly 17 year hiatus, Carcass released Surgical Steel, a record that quickly became the band’s most successful to date. The album picked up stylistically where their 1993 record, Heartwork, left off, itself a further diversion toward a somewhat pan-metal approach, one that embraced and picked from a wide variety of sub genres and periods of metal. Significantly, Surgical Steel begins with “1985,” an instrumental prelude of layered guitar harmonies that acts as both an homage to 1980s metal and a nod to the year that Carcass began.
On a Sunday night, at the Masquerade, Carcass came onstage to a recorded version of “1985” playing over the P.A. The band’s mainstay members, vocalist/bassist Jeff Walker and guitarist Bill Steer, both 46 years old, emerged behind the much-younger recent additions to the band, guitarist Ben Ash and drummer Daniel Wilding. They immediately lit into an uninterrupted series of songs, mostly from Surgical Steel, pausing only long enough for Walker — with his perpetually wry-but-cheery Liverpool accent — to manage a short greeting in the form of “How does this go again?” Then, in the next instant, a peal of chaotic lines came from the band, Walker was back to growling and another series of songs was under way.
Steer and Walker wear their age well. Walker is even beginning to bear a striking resemblance to the aforementioned Lemmy Kilmister, with his long-scale bass, thickening eyebrows and dark beard. Steer cuts the eternal shape of the ideal lead guitar player: wiry frame with stick-straight long blond hair and a slung Les Paul. Whereas the standard rock musician has tended to hang on to their period-specific glory days, a surprising number of metal artists like Steer and Walker have managed to mature into even more potent relevance, and have spanned wide time periods of creativity. And Carcass isn’t really an exceptional case. The most important bands in metal — particularly in the subgenres of death metal and black metal — are led by members that are well over the age of 40.
Perhaps this simply is the era we are entering. Just as the image of the true blues musician was an older figure, perhaps the same should hold for metal. The genre itself is by no means young, and its participants are committed for the long haul. It should come as no surprise that metal is moving beyond the longstanding association of youth with relevance, especially since the genre prizes virtuosic performances and a feeling of legitimacy (the phrase “death to false metal” being the old reprieve) as much as its extreme aesthetics, perhaps even a tiny bit more. Many bands are simply getting better with age.
The audiences and venues follow suit. Plenty of attendees on Sunday appeared to have been metal fans for decades, and there is perhaps no better place to see metal than the Masquerade. Jeff Walker couldn’t resist commentary on that subject from the stage, saying, “It’s a shame it’s closing. This place is an institution. We played here back in 1990. I think I was 21 years old.” The Masquerade is a place that, now doomed, wears the impression of its own demise in its bent iron, its gnarled rafters, and thereby gets better — another signal that where death looms, a powerful aesthetic brews.
The scenario raises a handful of questions about the future of the genre. Assuming the blues comparison holds, how long before metal’s legitimate old guard is replaced by imposters, as it was with the blues? Does death come to true metal first? Maybe so. But it will not be soon. For now we continue to be treated to a generation of dedicated metalheads, who, like Carcass, are living their art to its final breath.